The full piece and more can be found at the San Diego Jewish Journal's website.
More Than Trees Alone
By Alanna Berman
When most people think of the work of Jewish National Fund, the first thing that comes to mind is trees. And while it’s true that more than 250 million trees, at the rate of three million saplings each year, have been planted by the nonprofit organization since its inception in 1901, JNF does so much more. Infrastructure building, forestry and ecology, and combating water shortage issues and security threats across the country, are just a few of its programs.
Theodore Herzl founded JNF 109 years ago, with his hat serving as that first “little blue box” for donations. Since then, the organization has relied on the kindness and generosity of other supporters of Israel and the Jewsish people to help it accomplish its mission. Planned giving opportunties abound at JNF, allowing donors to work tzedakah into their long-term giving plans.
“Currently most of our contributions come through bequests, or items left to JNF through a donor’s will,” JNF Chief Planned Giving Officer Matthew Bernstein says. “This can mean a sum of money, but it can also be other assests like pension plans, 401Ks and IRAs and even life insurance policies.”
And the options don’t stop there. Planned giving representatives at JNF can work personally with donors to assist them in gifting anything from valuable artwork, jewelry, stocks and property, now or after the donor’s life. What’s more, donors can designate to which “action area(s)” within JNF their gift will go and how it will specifically benefit the programs of JNF. These include forestry and ecology; water; community development; security; education; research and development; and tourism and recreation.
“Donors have a tremendous amount of control [over how their money is spent],” Bernstein says. “We get some [donors] who simply say, ‘Leave the money for general purposes,’ which leaves the management to designate the funds to wherever they feel it is most needed, but a vast amount of our gifts are for specific areas that are important to the donors.”
A favorite program of donors to support, and one of JNF’s largest, is the Bluepring Negev campaign, which aims to build up the Negev to make it a more desirable home for more Israelis.
San Diego Campaign Executive Ezra Erle says the project, which designated $30 million to the area of Be’er Sheva alone, is still garnering most of JNF’s donor funding, which is helping to create some big changes for the area.
“It’s amazing what we’ve done with the Be’er Sheva River Park,” Erle says. “There used to be a dry riverbed there, and unfortunately, the locals used it as a trash dump. So what we did is we went in and took six months to remove all the waste, built a recycled-water plant, where we recycle all of the water from the city by pumping it through the dry riverbed, and created the River Park.”
Now with an attractive green space for residents, developers have begun building new high-rise apartment buildings there; playgrounds and even a man-made lake are part of the project’s final stages, as are plans for erection of the largest amphitheater in Israel to attract young people to the area.
“[Through the work of JNF] we are helping the people who live in Israel now, but we’re also very involved in the land and the infrastructure, preparing for the future,” Erle says of the importance of JNF’s entirely donor-supported network of projects in Israel.
While the Blueprint Negev campaign is one of the most popular JNF program among donors, the most popular planned giving option is the charitable gift annuity, Bernstein says, because it offers benefits for both the donor and for JNF.
“[With this option] the donor makes a contribution, they receive some type of interest from the gift, and then at their passing, the remainder is given as a gift to JNF,” Bernstein says.
Based on the donor’s age at the time of the annuity’s establishment, the rate of return on investment ranges from 6-11.3 percent each year, not including the tax benefits of establishing an annuity with JNF.
“The charitable gift annuity is one of the best planned giving options we offer, because it helps Israel while also helping the donor during their lifetime,” Erle says, “and then every year, they get a small percentage [of their investment] back, until the time the donor passes away, when the remainder of the funds would go toward a project they designated beforehand.”
With a minimum of $5,000 to start an annuity, this option is also an easy entry point for donors of all giving levels. Perhaps that’s why JNF’s gift annuity program is one of the largest in the country, Jewish-related or not.
In addition to the charitable gift annuity, JNF will advise in the creation of a donor advised fund, among other giving options (see “JNF’s Planned Giving Options”). Because of the numerous options for designating funds, Bernstein says directed giving comprises the bulk of JNF’s donations.
“There are plenty of projects to go around that need help and are vital, but one [project or program] isn’t any more important than another, which is what makes donation to JNF so great for all involved,” he says.
In the case of a donor advised fund, donors may make recommendations for how their money is to be spent, and can evaluate and reevaluate their contributions as they wish. A tax deduction for the donor and capital for JNF are equal incentives to this type of planned giving.
“The donor’s intent is very important when it comes to which gift opportunity we present to them,” Bernstein says. “It’s all based on their needs, their goals, what their wishes are for now and for later, and how they want their family to be involved.”
Working with donors themselves or with their financial advisors, planned giving staff at JNF provide all the information necessary before a donor makes the final decision to designate a gift to JNF.
“Sometimes we get calls from donor’s advisors or financial planners, attorneys or accountants, but we speak to people directly as well,” Bernstein says. “We then provide [the donor] with all the information they need to make an informed decision, ask that they share whatever we give them with an advisor, just to make sure that what they told us and what we’ve prepared for them is accurate…We work in partnership with donors and other professionals to make sure they are confident in the decisions they’ve made.”
Once donors are comfortable with their decision, planned giving staff are available to answer any questions that may come up about specific contributions. JNF even leads mission trips to Israel for donors to see the work to which they’ve contributed in their lifetime.
“What’s really great about JNF is that people can have that tangible connection to the land of Israel,” Erle says. “If there is a project that touches your heart, you can designate funds to that project, and then eventually go and see the work you’ve supported in person.”
For Bernstein, planned giving is a way to show donors how to make a difference in Israel while helping themselves through various tax benefits and returns.
“You can get involved ecologically, economically or in social issues,” he says. “There is a broad array of projects you can be involved with through us, and there are also a broad array of estate planning techniques we can show people…how to save money on their taxes, estate taxes and how to use life insurance correctly so they can give the money back to their children.
“Most people don’t realize they can give money to a charity and then have it work for them and their family…so that’s where we really shine.”
With all the planned giving options available through JNF, it’s no wonder many of their projects reach completion so quickly. In fact, JNF’s donor support is the highest of any charitable organization in Israel.
“Israel is not just home to Israelis,” but its also the home of Jews in the Diaspora as well,” Erle says. “We are doing whatever we can…to make Israel’s future very strong.”
For information about the programs and planned giving opportunities through JNF, call (800) 542-TREE (8733) or visit www.jnf.org. Or call Ezra Erle locally at (858) 824-9178, ext. 988.